When Alice Brooks was little, she wanted a Barbie from Santa. But Santa … didn’t exactly cooperate.
Her father told her that “Santa Claus does not bring barbies." Instead, she got a saw. "And I used that saw to build my own doll and dollhouse out of wood and nails. It was that early, hands-on, open-ended creative experience that got me interested in engineering.”
That childhood interest led to a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford. It also led to a desire to help other budding young scientists and engineers, especially girls, realize their potential.
It’s a potential that hasn’t been realized nearly often enough. The lack of women in STEM fields (science, tech, engineering and math) has been well documented. We’ve covered the problem extensively, and it’s even been labeled a national security issue.
Brooks thinks this disparity starts early, with the toys kids play with. She points out that boys often construct their toys. “You have to build your ninja warrior set … [and that building has] a lot of critical thinking and spatial awareness behind it. Whereas on the girls' side, you have a lot of pretend play and creative storytelling. Which is also really great; it’s just not much of those spatial awareness skills being developed.”
This early disparity is a problem, but one that Brooks believes can be remedied. Just get girls playing with toys that spark a love of engineering, math and science.
To do that, Brooks co-founded Roominate, a company that designs just those types of toys. Their playsets are modular, letting kids build, shape and remix them to their hearts content. Many of their toys contain motors, lights, fans or circuits, giving simple demonstrations of basic engineering concepts. And because all of it’s modular, children have used the playsets to make their own creations that aren’t listed on the box. They’ve dreamed up an elevator, rocket ships, even a model of the Golden Gate Bridge with working lights.
Now, giving girls toys won’t suddenly change the fact that less than 25 percent of STEM jobs are held by women. But Alice Brooks believes that toys can be part of the solution. And there are some experts who back her up. Engineer Beth Holloway of Purdue says that these types of toys can get kids excited about science and tech, especially when they “feel the sense of accomplishment that comes from designing and building something." And Andrea Schwalm, of Wired’s GeekMom Blog thinks toys “help foster interests that can turn into hobbies that can turn into careers.”
It all goes back to the saw Alice Brooks was given as a young child, and the love of engineering it sparked.
“It is really fun to build things, it is really fun to figure out how things work, and I think one of the problems is: for girls it’s more likely to be seen as nerdy and not cool, when it really is empowering to be able to do those things. The more that we put those things out there, the more girls are doing them, the more likely they are to be cool.”
A version of this story first aired as an interview on PRI's Innovation Hub.
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